Tag: storytelling

education & learninginnovationjournalismknowledge translation

Is Knowledge Translation In Health Too Important to Leave to Health Professionals?

Storytelling

Knowledge translation — and its affiliated terms knowledge exchange, knowledge integration and knowledge mobilization — was coined to describe a process of taking what is known into what is done in health across the spectrum of science, practice, policy and  the public’s health. As health issues become more complex due to the intertwining of demographics, technology, science, and cultural transformations the need to better understand evidence and its impact on health has never been higher. Questions remain: has demand met supply? How are the health professions dealing with this equation?

Translating knowledge

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), one of the earliest champions of the concept of knowledge translation in research, define it as:

a dynamic and iterative process that includes synthesisdisseminationexchange and ethically-sound application of knowledge to improve the health of Canadians (sic), provide more effective health services and products and strengthen the health care system.

These ideas are expanded below:

Synthesis – Synthesis, in this context, means the contextualization and integration of research findings of individual research studies within the larger body of knowledge on the topic. A synthesis must be reproducible and transparent in its methods, using quantitative and/or qualitative methods. It could take the form of a systematic review, follow the methods developed by the Cochrane Collaboration, result from a consensus conference or expert panel or synthesize qualitative or quantitative results. Realist syntheses, narrative syntheses, meta-analyses, meta-syntheses and practice guidelines are all forms of synthesis. Resources related to synthesis are available.

Dissemination – Dissemination involves identifying the appropriate audience and tailoring the message and medium to the audience. Dissemination activities can include such things as summaries for / briefings to stakeholders, educational sessions with patients, practitioners and/or policy makers, engaging knowledge users in developing and executing dissemination/implementation plan, tools creation, and media engagement.

Exchange – The exchange of knowledge refers to the interaction between the knowledge user and the researcher, resulting in mutual learning. According to the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation (CHSRF), the definition of knowledge exchange is “collaborative problem-solving between researchers and decision makers that happens through linkage and exchange. Effective knowledge exchange involves interaction between knowledge users and researchers and results in mutual learning through the process of planning, producing, disseminating, and applying existing or new research in decision-making.”

Ethically-sound application of knowledge – Ethically-sound KT activities for improved health are those that are consistent with ethical principles and norms, social values, as well as legal and other regulatory frameworks – while keeping in mind that principles, values and laws can compete among and between each other at any given point in time. The term application is used to refer to the iterative process by which knowledge is put into practice.

In short, knowledge translation is about taking what we learn and know from evidence, sharing that knowledge with others and assisting them to make useful health choices in practice and policy through KT.

This often involves communicating across contexts, disciplines, and roles between and from scientists, clinicians, policy makers and to the public alike. In a health environment that is increasingly becoming complex, the ability to communicate across boundaries is no longer an advantage, it’s an essential skill. While we may not always have the right language, we can translate meaning through stories.

But if stories are to be effective they need to be valued.

The value of storytelling

I’ve seen health professionals — scientists and clinicians — roll their eyes when you mention storytelling in a work context. It is as if the only legitimate role for stories is to communicate with children (which University of Alberta researchers are exploring as a tool for sharing health knowledge with parents). Yet, it is through stories that most people share what they know in every other context; why would it be different in health?

Perhaps it is the connotation that stories are ‘made up’ like children’s bedtime tales, but one need only look to journalism to find that we’ve been making ‘stories’ a central part of our life every day. We listen to drive-time radio for stories about the traffic conditions, we watch, download and listen to news stories filed by professional journalists and citizen bloggers alike on mainstream media, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook along with myriad sources across the web. Last week we were glued to various sources to learn storiessome of them false — and create stories about the events of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Stories are what conveys multiple information threads and puts it in a coherent context.

Stories are coherence engines.

Valuing knowledge translation

If knowledge translation is important then it should be reflected in research priorities and evidence for its impact on the system across different disciplines. Dr Shannon Scott and her U of A team recently conducted a systematic review of knowledge translation strategies in the allied health professions and found that the field was full of low quality studies that made it impossible to make firm statements on which methods were best among them . That team has recently proposed a systematic review looking at how the arts and visual methods can further contribute to KT in practice, although it likely the same issue with methodological quality might come into play here, too.

What she and her team are doing is looking at the process of sharing stories and, from a research perspective, sharing stories appears to not have been worth investing in scientifically. At least, not enough to generate a lot of studies and good evidence.

One could argue that knowledge translation is still new and that it takes time to generate such evidence. That is partly true, but it is also an easy prop for those who want to avoid the messiness that comes with communication (and its problematic research context), learning from others, and creating more equitable information spaces, which is what knowledge translation ultimately does. Knowledge translation has also been in use for almost 20 years so in that time — even with the most dismal assessment of the length of time it takes to put knowledge into practice — we should be seeing some decent research published.

KT is fundamentally about sharing. Journalists’ are rewarded for sharing — the more they share and the more people who they share with (as measured by readers, listeners, viewers etc..) the more successful they are in their work. Teachers are rewarded for sharing because that means that they are teaching people. Librarians are rewarded for sharing because that means people are checking out books and using the resources in their library.

We don’t apply the same standard to academic research, even though we have some crude metrics to measure reach and impact,  and there is roughly no metric for the degree to which clinicians share among themselves. Maybe this needs to change.

I have scientific colleagues who are fierce in the face of their most strident academic critics and have delivered keynotes to auditoriums filled with researchers that are nearly paralyzed in the face of speaking to the public. This is not fear of public speaking, its fear of speaking to the public.

Should they be? I don’t think speaking to the public should be expected to be enjoyable for everyone, but neither are doing statistical calculations, completing ethics applications, or presenting posters at conferences, but we still expect scientists to do that. We still expect nurses, doctors, psychologists, medical technicians and social workers to traverse complex social problems to talk to their patients in an open and honest way.

Why is it when scientists are speaking to policy makers, clinicians to scientists, policy makers to the public, or any professional to another from another discipline, speciality or division we decide its not critical for them to make the effort?

Why don’t we do the research to support it? 

Why is it OK not to do KT because its uncomfortable, awkward, difficult or confusing?

Declining interest, rising demand

It is perhaps for reasons like this that knowledge translation is so poorly understood and taken up as a focus for research. Looking at Google NGram data (which tracks mention of specific topics in books and publications) we see a steady rise in citations until about 2003 followed by a levelling off. Keep in mind that the leveling begins before social media became known. In the years after Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — arguably the most powerful communications media we have for doing knowledge translation widely (but perhaps not deeply) — there is roughly no sharp increase.

Below are the citations for the terms knowledge translation, knowledge exchange, and knowledge integration  from 1996 (when the Web first started gaining wide use beyond academia and the military) and 2008, the latest year for which there is available data. Note that the numbers reflect general mentions as a percentage of overall terms, so they are relative, not absolute values.

Figure 1: Google NGram Data for KT, KE & KI: 1996-2008

Knowledge Translation, Exchange & Integration NGram

Is there so much other stuff to talk about in 2013 that the relative importance of knowledge translation is diminished?

A look at Google Trend data using the same terms finds that not only are these concepts not growing, their mention is actually shrinking.

Looking at the three terms we see that all three concepts have declined over time. During these years — 2004-2013 — we saw not only the birth of social media, but the rise of Internet-enabled handheld devices to allow knowledge to be shared anywhere there is a data signal. We now have apps and nearly all of the Internets resources in our pockets and we are seeing a decline in the use of these terms.

Figure 2: Google Trend Data for KT, KE & KI: 1996-2013

Knowledge Term Trends

Where to?

So to review: We have a body of evidence in KT that is problematic and incomplete at the same time we have a decrease in use of the terms, while at the very same time we have a sharp rise in available tools and technologies to share information quickly and a continued, steady demand for more information to make decisions for health providers, patients, policy makers and insurers.

Yes, the data presented here are not perfect. But does it not make sense that there should at least be some trend upward if knowledge translation is valued? Should we not see some shift to more research, better research evidence, and greater interest given the tools and scope of communications we have through social media?

This begs the question: is knowledge translation in health too important to leave to health professionals? 

In future posts this question will be looked at in greater depth. Stay tuned.

* Blog has been updated since original post

behaviour changecomplexitymarketingsystems thinking

Marketing Metaphors of Meaning in Complexity

Karl Heyden Eine interessante Geschichte

Metaphors and storytelling are ways to navigate through complex, inter-related ideas in a way that brings coherence and delight to them in narrative form. Stories are not just for children, but a serious tool for bringing complexity to life, making it accessible and usable to a world that can benefit from learning more about it.

Have you ever found yourself curled up in bed with a book that you can’t put down or found yourself up much later than you’d planned because of a TV program or movie you got caught up in? Ever have the same experience with a piece of academic writing? How about a technical report? I’ll bet the answer is yes to the former examples more than the latter (if there is a yes at all to the second two). Books — mostly, but not always, fiction books — magazine and newspaper, articles, poems and even blog posts thrive on a narrative that takes you a journey even if you don’t know the destination. That narrative, if its engaging, has consistency, a tone, a flow and a ‘texture’ that makes it enriching. It is perhaps the reason why so much scholarly writing is so dull: the texture is rather dry and lacks appeal.

Not all scientific articles require such appeal. Indeed, the standardized methods of reporting experiments can be very useful in interpreting results and deriving meaning from complicated interactions. Yet, this application of the standard model of writing from science to other areas is perhaps taking scholarly work to places it didn’t need to go. Or perhaps it is preventing us from going places we need to go.

In terms of complexity, one of those places it needs to go is into widespread discourse on public policy, health promotion, and social program planning. Storytelling and metaphors are one vehicle.

Making metaphors and embodied cognition

A recent Scientific American blog post by explored the role of metaphors in some depth, bringing attention to some of the early work of psycholinguist pioneers George Lakoff and Noam Chomsky in looking at the role of embodied cognition, a concept where a metaphor actually gets integrated into the body (literally or figuratively). In the column Samuel McNerny looks at the history of the idea and the use of metaphor, drawing on interviews, literature and recent research.

As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.

Metaphors like “warming up” are therefore representations of real phenomena that become figurative in certain scenarios. McNerny adds:

The last few years have seen many complementary studies, all of which are grounded in primary experiences:

• Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward whilethinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead

• Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as male. Female is Soft

• Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. Important is Heavy.

• Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity

The challenge for complexity in social life is coming up with the right metaphor and finding one that is embodied within the systems we seek to influence.

Telling systems stories

One of the best examples of the use of storytelling and metaphors to explain complexity comes from Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge with his humourous, insightful look at order and the art of organizing a children’s party.

What Snowden does is anchor something new (complexity) in a familiar frame of reference (a children’s party). While this is not something that directly translates to how we operate social organizations such as “warming up” does to explain relations between people, it offers something close.

Anchoring the novel in the familiar. Childhood is the one universal we adults all share. Travel the globe and watch children interact and you’ll see patterns repeated everywhere. Emotion is another universal: joy, fear, anger, contentment, curiosity, and such are all platforms that can be used to create and share stories about our world. For those of us working in communities, we need to understand what universals exist in those realms. This means paying deep attention to the systems we are a part of.

In short: systems thinkers may need to be participant observers to the systems they wish to influence and learn about the big and small things that drive them.

As systems are large, complicated and complex, it is unreasonable and perhaps impossible to know everything necessary to successfully navigate through it and maneuver the leverage points necessary to create responsible, sustained systems change. To do so, we need to enlist others and that means getting complexity into the minds of many operating in the system and not just a few ‘systems thinkers’.

We need to get better at telling stories and marketing metaphors of meaning.

Learning storytelling from marketers

Marketing is largely about identity and stories about identity. Marketers want to influence what you do (choose, use, purchase, etc..) and how you experience what you do when you do it. To do this, they know the importance of design and the stories to accompany that design. Design, when done well, is partly about creating empathy with those who are to benefit from the products of design and the best products out there are ones that apply empathy and guide behaviour at the same time. Steve Jobs and his design team led by Jonathan Ive were (are) famous for doing this at Apple.

In an earlier post I mentioned the work of Rory Sutherland and his discussion of tobacco use as an illustration of the ways in which failing to empathize with a product user’s life can change the impact of policies and programs aimed to improve it. The case (made in the video below) is that there are some real, tangible benefits to smoking that get ignored when we aim to snuff it out (bad pun intended). For public health to enhance its effectiveness, we need to pay attention to these benefits and find ways for people to derive them in healthier contexts.

But listen to what Sutherland says not only here, but in another of his TED talks he points to ways in which small changes can have enormous consequences if done in a systems-forward manner (my term, not his).

What Sutherland does is not just provide good ideas, but tells good stories. Like Dave Snowden, he captures our interest and makes us want to think about concepts like behavioural economics and marketing just as Snowden inspires thinking about the differences between order and chaos.

Not all of us can be great storytellers or funnymen (and women), but we need to take this seriously if we wish to use complexity and systems thinking to advance change in our world purposefully, because massive change is happening whether we want it or not. The key is whether we will be telling stories in the future of how we helped shepherd change that helped us be more resilient and thrive or let these forces shape us in ways that caused unnecessary problems. It is, as Bruce Mau said, not about the world of design, but the design of the world.

complexitysystems thinking

Marketing the Narrative of Complexity

Sunset 2007-1Complexity, by its very nature, is not a simple concept to communicate, yet it is increasingly becoming one that will define our times and may be the key to ensuring human survival and wellbeing in the years to come. If society is to respond to complex challenges the meaning of complexity needs to be communicated to the world in a manner that is understandable to a wide audience. This is the first in a series of posts that are looking at the concept of complexity and the challenges and opportunities with marketing it to the world.

Across North America this week the temperatures are vastly exceeding normal levels into ranges more akin to places like India or East Africa. The climate is changing and regardless of what the causes are the complexities that this introduces require changes in our thinking and actions or human health and wellbeing will be at risk. To follow Einstein’s famous quote:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”

Many U.S. States are suffering hurricane-like after-effects from a Derecho that hit last week, knocking out power at a time when temperatures are into the high 90’s and low 100’s. Derechos are rapid moving hot air systems that are difficult to predict and can only be anticipated under certain conditions. The heat wave combined with the lack of air conditioning and supplies left 13 dead, maybe more. The heat wave is continuing and is expected to last throughout the weekend.

But this post is not really about the weather, but the challenges with complexity that it represents and how we need to be better understanding what complexity is and how to work with it if we are to survive and thrive in the years to come.

Blog interrupted

It’s ironic that this post was delayed by blackout. I live in Toronto, Canada and we have a remarkably stable power supply, yet last night and through this morning I was without power  due to suspected overheated circuits attributed to high air conditioning use, shutting down my Internet and everything else with it. In many parts of the world, this kind of blackout is commonplace and a fact of daily living, but not here…yet. This fortuitous bit of timing illustrates the fragility of many of our systems given the reliance on power to fuel much of what we do (e.g., cooking, food storage, Internet, traffic signals, lighting, etc..).

Virtually all of the infrastructure of modern life (here and increasingly globally) is tied to electricity. If you’re interested in imagining what would happen if it all shuts off, I’d highly recommend reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Weisman uses a complexity scientist and futurists’ tool called a thought experiment to craft a book about what New York City would look like if humans suddenly disappeared. The book illustrates how nature might take over, how the underground subways would flood and collapse because of the millions of litres of water needed to be pumped out of it each day, and how certain human-built structures would decay over time (some far faster than we might hope).

Thought experiments take data from things that have happened already, theories, and conjecture and project scenarios into the future based on the amalgam of these. It provides some grounded means of anticipating possible futures to guide present action.

From present delays to future/tense

The Guardian asked a number of scientists working on climate about whether this current spate of extreme weather events is attributable to global warming. The scientists offered a range of answers that (not surprisingly) lacked a definitive statement around cause-and-effect, yet the comments hint at a deep concern. These anomalous conditions are starting to move further towards the end of the normal curve, meaning that they are becoming less statistically plausible to be caused by chance. What this means for the weather, for climate, for our economies is not known; all we have is thought experiments and scenarios. But the future is coming and we may want to be prepared by helping create one we want, not just one we get.

Unfortunately, we cannot wait for the data to confirm that global warming is happening or determine that we are contributing to it and to what degree. This is not just a weather issue; the same situation is playing itself out with issues worldwide ranging from healthcare funding to immigration policies and migration patterns. Interconnected, interdependent and diverse agents and information forms are interacting to create, emergent patterns of activity.

It is for this reason that weather patterns — despite being one of the most monitored and studied phenomenon — can’t be accurately predicted outside of a few hours in advance, if at all. There is too much information coming together between air flows, humidity, land forms, physical structure and human intervention (e.g., airplane contrails) interacting simultaneously in a dynamic manner to create a reliable model of the data. David Orrell’s book Apollo’s Arrow is a terrific read if you want to understand complexity in relation to weather (and more) or see his talk at TEDX on YouTube.

Two’s company, three’s complexity (and other analogies)

The above heading is taken from a title of another book on complexity and tries to simply point to how adding just a little bit of information (another person to a conversation perhaps) can radically alter the experience from being simple or complicated to complex. Just thinking about planning a night out with two people vs. three and you’ll know a little of what this means.

Analogies and metaphors are ways in which complexity scholars commonly seek to convey how the differences in conditions represent varying states of order. Brenda Zimmerman and others write about putting a rocket to the moon as being complicated and raising a child as being complex. One of my favourites is Dave Snowden‘s video on How to Organize a Children’s Party. One of the reasons we resort to analogies is that we need a narrative that fits with their experience. All of us were children and some of us have had them as parents so we can relate to Zimmerman and Snowden’s ideas because we’ve experienced it firsthand.

We haven’t experienced anything like what is anticipated from global warming. In the Americas, parts of Europe and Asia we are enormously fortunate to have entire generations that don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, have no healthcare, be without electricity, or have no access to safe water and proper sanitations. Stories about children’s parties might not bring these scenarios home. It is why Weisman’s book is so clever: it makes a plausible scenario fiction.

Science fact as science fiction

The role of fiction might be the key to opening the marketing vault to complexity. Scott Smith and others have been exploring how the use of science fiction helped pave the way for some of today’s modern technologies and innovations. By weaving together fantasy narratives and imaginations on the future, technologists have managed to re-create these tools for current life. Witness the Tricorder Project that seeks to develop the same multifunction health and information tool used by Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.

We are making headway with complex information as witnessed by the popularity of infographics and data visualizations. But there is much more to be done.

Complex problems require complex solutions. Artists, designers, scientists, marketers, journalists and anyone who can communicate well can play a role. Making complexity something that people not only know about, but want to know about is the task at hand. In doing so, we may find people reaching for and advocating for complex solutions rather than stop-gap, band-aid ones like buying a car with better fuel economy as the main strategy to combat carbon emissions.

It’s been done before. Marshall McLuhan wrote about esoteric, yet remarkably insightful and complex topics and became a household name in part to his appearance in Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall. Our media landscape is far more complex now (no pun intended) to think that a single appearance of any complexity superstar (if one existed) would change public perception of the topic in the same way that McLuhan’s did for his theories on media. Yet, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth might have done more to get people talking about the environment than anything. And while Gore is not known for his witty storytelling, his slide show did a good job.

To begin our journey of marketing complexity we need to come up with our stories so that we can tell ones that are pleasant, rather than the ones that are less so. And if you want one that fits this latter category, I strongly recommend reading Gwynn Dyer’s chilling Climate Wars. Instead, let’s get closer to living what Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler write about in Abundance.

The future is ours to write.

For more books and resources on complexity, check out the library page on Censemaking.

social mediasystems science

Social Networks: Beyond the Numbers

There's More to Connections Than Lines

Social networking research is becoming a hot topic as people discover the potential that mapping has for guiding policy and practice, however like many other “hot” research methods, there is a need to go beyond the numbers to make sense of what they really mean lest we create beautiful maps and have no place to go with them. 

The rise of social media applications and the ability for anyone to use simple tools to create, extend and shape their social graph with a mouse click or tap of the app has helped stoke interest in network research. Social networking methods are those that tend to favour quantitative development of maps and numerical representations of what a social network looks like. We are most often terribly ignorant of the role and position we play within a network so to see ourselves and peers positioned literally on a map can be revealing in more ways than one.

Between 2005 and 2006 my colleague Tim Huerta and I did a study that looked at the formation of a community of practice (CoP) in tobacco control through the lens of the social network and published a paper on this based on that work. Part of the study involved giving a group of people who were meeting face-to-face a survey and ask them about who they knew that influenced their work in the web-assisted tobacco interventions (the CoP’s focus), how well they knew the people they identified, and what kind of things they did together. This data was entered over the first night and analyzed for the next day’s meeting with the network map revealed (see summary here, full article here) .

While the map itself was generated through quantitative analysis, revealing patterns akin to the image above, it was the meaning that people gave to those connections that allowed this group to begin envisioning how they could leverage their untapped potential in the network to advance their interests as a community. This sense-making process is too often neglected in social network research and risks turning something meaningful (like a relationship) into a statistic that can more easily be dismissed — or misunderstood.

This week another social network study was published looking at tobacco control and the use of Twitter as a medium to support that. This study didn’t map the network per se, but rather looked at the type of people in the network and what the content of the messages that were shared within it. This represents another type of social networking study where the researchers aim to peer into the activities of a group of people who are interconnected and describe from afar what they see and who they think they see. This has some utility for those wanting to delve into areas where there is little known (such as Twitter and smoking cessation), but can also mislead people if used improperly. Networks are dynamic, with influence shifting and participants activity modulating greatly within its lifespan and because of this, cross-sectional data poses the risk of capturing a slice of activity that might not reflect the whole.

Which slice do you want?

Consider the analogy of slicing a watermelon sideways and doing so at the end, rather than in the middle: if you love watermelon, you want the middle slice because it’s bigger and richer than the end. The same might be true for social networking activity.

The tendency to want to produce network maps using numbers alone to explain them is highly problematic. Even Facebook has decided it will give greater priority to what people do in the network, rather than how big the network is as evidenced by the push to add Skype-powered video to its service this week. Facebook knows that their value is determined less by how many friends you have, but more about how you truly connect: photosharing, comments, game-playing.

True, this can all be quantified, but they are going a little further beyond the numbers. The Facebook example provides an interesting example of potential social network studies that could look at the type and content of the photos shared, how people have reacted to them, and what kind of social movement has been formed by the content created for and shared through that network. If you want to leverage a network for social change and good, this is the kind of stuff you need to focus on, not just the total numbers of people involved.

Powerful social network research is as much about having a good statistician as it is an anthropologist and together, they need to have the story that comes from it, woven together by the users and a good storytelling host.

*** Watermelon photo by Rameez Sadlkot used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr. Network image used under licence.

complexityenvironmentinnovationknowledge translation

Creating Campires For Innovation and Knowledge Translation

Gather round

A campire has been a beacon for human life for centuries and may provide the ideal analogy and literal tool to engaging people in creating new things. The opportunities for it to shape our thinking and actions is enormous.

The campfire is a place where we go for warmth, intimacy, safety, light, food and inspiration. As camping season comes upon us in the Northern part of the Americas, it seems fitting to consider the ways that the campfire might be used to stoke the sparks of imagination and flames of passion (pun firmly intended).

Metaphors and analogies are commonly used in systems thinking and complexity science to illustrate concepts that are, on their own, relatively complex and awkward to describe literally. A campfire provides both a metaphor for bringing people together, but also a literal tool that could be used more effectively in work with groups struggling to innovate, collaborate and contemplate together. From a design perspective, campfires and the social system that they create around them provide an opportunity to enhance intimacy quickly, allowing for the potential to explore issues in ways that are more difficult to do in other settings.

Consider some of the following properties of the campfire.

Lighting has been found to have a strong environmental effect on many behaviours and moods, and the type of inconsistent light that is thrown by a campfire is similar to that which induces relaxation and intimacy (PDF).

It can be argued that storytelling has been our most powerful vehicle for sharing what we know throughout human history. Research on narrative effectiveness has found that emulating the environments created by a campfire (PDF), the close-in, small-group, open dialogue sharing kinds of spaces, leads to more effective communication in business contexts.

The sensory richness of a campfire — the smell of wood and smoke, the crackle, the sight of sparks and flame, the feeling of heat — all create an environment that differs from much of what we are used to, provoking psychophysiological stimulation that has been associated with learning outcomes. Research linking environmental design and architecture has explored the phenomenon of sensory richness and how modern designed environments reduce this and (potentially) limit learning.  (See program example here).

Another quality of a campfire is that it creates space for meditative inquiry. Anthropologists and psychologists have speculated that it was the campfire and the meditative rituals that it created that led modern humans to separate from Neanderthals. The  focus on something like a fire draws attention away from the chaos of the world and channels into a circle that is generated through the campfire.

One of the benefits of a campfire is the circle that it creates. Leadership scholar Meg Wheatley, Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea reflected on their use of the circle and how it has been used historically as a means of creating a common space where participants are on more equal footing with one another as a means of leadership promotion. In a circle, everyone can (usually) see everyone else and no position is held as more important than others, which privileges all participants and not just some.

Lastly, the campfire creates not just internal peace, but social intimacy as well. Indeed,modern social media has been compared to the campfire (PDF) in its ability to potentially replicate the focused, shared space that a campfire occupied for much of human life. For the reasons listed above, the social media effect is likely limited, but nonetheless the metaphor may partly hold in light of a lack of alternatives.

In practice, lighting a chord of wood in the middle of an urban setting might be problematic, but it is worth considering for those of us looking to create those social spaces where people can gather. Taking a break and leaving town might be worth doing as well. Failing that, what are the campfire-like spaces that we can create with what we have.

Designers, health promoters or anyone seeking to bring together ideas while working in complex spaces may wish to give this more thought — or meditate on it, which might (as it has done before) spark a new evolutionary shift attributed to the campfire.

complexityeducation & learningemergencesystems sciencesystems thinking

Storytelling, Sense-making, and Systems Thinking

Making sense of life through storytelling

I teach a class on systems thinking perspectives on public health. This past week we discussed the role of narratives and storytelling as ways to learn about systems and how to organize diverse information and how to make sense of it all.

For those working in systems thinking and complexity science within a public health context, there is much to be excited about in terms of opportunities, much less to be excited about when it comes to knowledge synthesis. That is, there isn’t a lot out there to synthesize when someone wants to study a problem from a systems perspective. Particularly if one is looking for clues as to what kind of evidence can inform decision making. Indeed, a great deal of the problems that systems thinkers face in many fields have no substantive body of evidence to support decision making.

And even if there was such a body, complex systems are often so dynamic that evidence becomes hard to apply because the contexts in which that knowledge is generated is so particular. Even on the same subject, a study of complexity or system dynamics might only provide guidance on ways to approach other problems, rather than prescriptive strategies. That’s complexity and systems for you.

But knowing that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at the problems in some depth. Those looking to take on systems problems tend to find two main questions (challenges) starting out: what are the boundaries of the system, and how does all the information within those boundaries fit together?

To answer these questions, I had my class consider the story of their problem. As part of the course, each student is asked to concentrate on one subject of personal interest and last week I asked the class to consider the story of the problem that they are wrestling with in their research and health promotion work. These public health problems include issues of workplace wellness, HIV/Hepatitis co-infection in prisons, healthy fathering, the application of design to health, youth engagement, environmental sustainability and resilience and more, so there is much to talk about.

Storytelling suffers from being that thing you did as kids like the photo above or something you do for fun, but isn’t widely considered a valid tool for exploring complex systems. It is this myth that I sought to dispel in my class, because when you start telling the story of system, remarkable things happen and much sense can be made from relatively little information.

I started off with some reference sources from the always interesting and insightful Dave Snowden, drawing on two of his earlier papers on narrative and organizational strategy. Dave’s written extensively on this topic, including role that paradox plays in stories, with many other resources found here. What this did was frame the issue not just of one of stories, but large and small narrative patterns that shape the way that people understand the system they are in.

In the case of the students in my class, they are all dealing with subject material for which there is little material on systems thinking to use as a start point. For most of them, they have little idea of where they are within that system relative to the problem at hand. Storytelling provides an opportunity to cover a lot of ground and organize the information that we already know about a system into a manner that allows us some sense-making opportunity. Sometimes there are large stories and grand narratives to which they belong, but often it is the small exchanges or micro-narratives that we work with. Both provide much fodder for systems thinking.

What makes a story is a coherent organization of information, characters, a plot, tension or conflict, a setting and a point of view. With these elements one starts to provide the context and boundary conditions for imagining a system and thus, the foundations for a model of it.

This can be done through long-form narrative or something simple like a haiku (in fact, one of the learners in the class wrote a series of haikus on her topic).

When you write out your story, notice what gets included and what does not.

  • What emotions are present (if any)?
  • Is there any reliance on past knowledge (or evidence)?
  • Are there characters that are more prominent and, if so, why?
  • What is the tension or unresolved conflict in the story?
  • Why was the setting chosen and what limits does it impose?
  • Are you avoiding parts of the system in storytelling intentionally? Or, are you choosing to tell the story in a manner that hides or obscures parts of it you feel uncomfortable with?

These are some of the questions that a systems thinker can ask of the story that is produced, and the answers provide insight into what the system holds, how its organized, and how you as an agent of inquiry and change intend to influence it. The goal isn’t to create the best model or the right model, for neither of those exist. What is about is creating appropriate, useful models. And as George Box famously said about models:

All models are false. Some models are useful

All stories are fiction, but for systems thinkers, some stories are useful.

** Photo from the New York Public Library via The Commons Flickr pool . No copyright exists.

complexityeducation & learningpublic healthresearchsocial media

Storytelling in the Age of Twitter

 

Storytelling has been on my mind this week. Not the kind of stories that many of us had a children like those in Mother Goose, but rather the ones that we more often tell through chance encounters in the hallway or Tweet about over the Internet. However, like Mother Goose many of the stories we tell include narratives that feature archetypes and draw on a long history of shared knowledge between the storyteller and her or his audience. Unlike in cultures where storytelling is fashioned in a manner that requires sustained attention and considerable skill and practice (think of the many First Nations & Aboriginal communities worldwide or the Irish Seanachaidhean), tools like Twitter, blogs and Facebook enable us to tell stories in new, short form ways to audiences we might not even know about. Sorting through the tweets of 150 different people per day requires a process of sensemaking that is different from those used to ascertain meaning in a long form story. Both are valuable.

Although it is tempting to privilege long-form storytelling, the kind found in essays, feature films, and books, it may be those tweets that better fit with our cognitive tendencies for sensemaking. If you think about your average day, you might interact with a few dozen people face-to-face and perhaps many dozens more through your social networks. How many of those interactions featured a full-fledged story; one that had a clear start, middle, end and coherence that could only be gathered from the story itself, not past relationships with the storyteller? Probably very few. Instead, we much more often speak, write, and even film in narrative fragments; small chunks co-constructed and contextually bound. Think about any buzzword or catch phrase and you can see this in action. From ‘whassup‘ to ‘getting Kanyed‘, these terms have meanings that go far beyond the obvious and can be conveyed with one or two words. Twitter represents this very well with its 140 character limit.

This past week I spent three days with a great group of people getting learning about complexity-based approaches to sensemaking using narrative fragments, software and a variety of facilitation techniques aimed at taking the science of complexity into the practical change realm with the folk at Cognitive Edge. What this accreditation process did was provide a theory-based set of tools and strategies for making sense of vast amounts of information in the form of stories and narrative fragments for purposes of decision-making and research. What this method does is acknowledge the complex spaces in which many organizational decisions are made and, through the Cynefin framework, help groups make sense of the many bits of knowledge that they generate and share that is often unacknowledged. It provides a theoretically-grounded and data-driven method of making sense of large quantities of narrative fragments; the kind we tell in organizations and communities.

From a systems perspective, viewing knowledge exchange and generation through the narrative fragments that we produce is far more likely to lead to insights about how the system operates and developing anticipatory guidance for decision-making than waiting for fully-formed stories to appear and analyzing those. This, like nearly everything in systems thinking, requires a mind-shift from the linear and whole to the non-linear and fragmented. But thanks to Michael Cheveldave and Dave Snowden and their team this non-linearity need not be incoherent. I’d recommend checking out their amazing website for a whole list of novel and open-source methods of applying cognitive and complexity science to problem identification and intelligence.

Thanks Michael and the Toronto knowledge workers group for a great three days! I’m looking at my tweets in a whole new way.